19.06.18 Baum, Reformation of the Senses

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Claire Taylor Jones

The Medieval Review 19.06.18

Baum, Jacob M. Reformation of the Senses: The Paradox of Religious Belief and Practice in Germany. Studies in Sensory History. Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2018. pp. 312. ISBN: 978-0-252-08399-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Claire Jones
University of Notre Dame
Claire.T.Jones.406@nd.edu

In this study, Jacob M. Baum takes on the long-accepted historiographical narrative that the Reformation responded to the luxurious excess of late medieval Christianity by stripping worship of its sensual distractions to focus on the Word. Baum casts a critical eye on both sides of the divide, dedicating three chapters each to late medieval piety and to Reformation efforts and rhetoric. In the end, Baum does not so much overturn this narrative as nuance it in sophisticated ways, which clarify the nature and the stakes of the religious conflicts, the everyday practicalities of worship experience, and the philosophical assumptions shared by all parties. Throughout, Baum argues two main points: First, historians should not let the strident rhetoric of early Protestants drown out the practical, economic, everyday realities of the average parish, especially rural ones in contrast to wealthier urban churches. Second, everybody (including Calvinists) understood very well that there was no such thing as "desensualization" while humans still had bodies and at stake in Christian liturgy was nothing less than the shape of the human soul. Attending to each of the five senses, Baum provides an engaging and varied analysis of several different types of sources that truly illuminates the way sensual experience of Christian worship changed in sixteenth-century Germany.

The first three chapters treat the sense experience of fifteenth-century Christian ritual and the discourses surrounding it. In chapter 1, Baum considers each of the five senses in turn, addressing both the rich "sensory design" of the wealthy urban churches of St. Lorenz and St. Sebald in Nuremberg and the simpler rituals of poorer rural parishes. This chapter contains imaginative speculations about what the sensory experience of late medieval church-goers might have been, but these are backed up by documents, statistics, and contemporary accounts. The strongest example concerns the taste of communion wafers, which were supposed to be sweet but whose taste must have varied widely depending on the resources of the community in question. Baum draws on financial records of host imports and host iron repair, as well as Nicholas Cusanus's condemnation of spelt, to demonstrate that the ideal of a sweet or neutral, melt-in-your-mouth wafer was probably rarely achieved. In order to analyze the visual, tactile, and olfactory impact of fifteenth-century Mass, Baum combed surviving inventories to determine how broadly such objects as monstrances, patens, chalices, censers, and pax boards were available. In rural parishes, they were generally not and Baum meditates on the sensory gulf between such small parishes and the urban churches of Nuremberg. This chapter's combination of reconstructive sense imagination with archival statistics is extremely compelling.

Chapters 2 and 3 treat learned discourse and vernacular discourse respectively. Baum draws heavily on Hugh of St. Victor's De sacramentiis and William Durandus's Rationale divinorum officiorum, both influential through the end of the Middle Ages, as well as fifteenth-century intellectuals including Gabriel Biel, Gregor Reisch, and Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg, among others. Baum shows that the authoritative discourse of trained churchmen valued the sensory aspect of liturgy insofar as sense experiences imprinted the soul and thereby effected moral change. Fifteenth-century intellectuals believed that experiencing church ritual made people more virtuous. Baum's presentation of this argument becomes a bit confused or even reversed in the sections on taste and smell. He adduces arguments that things naturally taste or smell good when they are beneficial to humans and therefore, something's pleasant smell or taste is a mystical sign of its goodness (e.g. praying the rosary producing the odor of incense, 65). Interestingly, the converse of this argument appears in the final chapter with Lutheran theologian Joachim Westphal's resistance to the Interim on the grounds that it is human nature to prefer sweetness over nutritious foods and that this proclivity is harmful (179). Baum's primary focus, however, is the continued acceptance of the basic premise that sense impressions have moral force.

Baum's treatment of "vernacular theology" in chapter 3 is rather unsatisfying in light of the surrounding chapters. He provides a cursory treatment of Katharina Tucher before devoting the bulk of the chapter to German-language prayer books. Those interested in lay prayer practices will find a fascinating presentation of this genre with a wealth of useful information and statistics (I personally thought it was great). However, this rich background information prevents a thorough development of the role of sensory experience in vernacular prayer practice. Baum asserts that sensory language permeated vernacular prayer books because it appealed to the late medieval devout, but without providing much in the way of illustrative examples.

This lack is felt all the more acutely because of its juxtaposition with chapter 4's rich and sweeping presentation of Protestant propaganda against late medieval Church ritual. Baum argues that the historiographical narrative of Protestant "desensualization" was initially propagated by the reformers themselves even before they began to develop any practical alternatives for Christian worship. Protestant pamphlets and tracts rhetorically emphasized the excess of the traditional Church by listing the superfluous objects and acts extensively. Baum echoes this procedure by piling up quote after quote of Protestant vituperation to good effect. The result is both convincing and entertaining to read, it is merely a pity that chapter 3 does not balance the strength of this chapter.

The second important claim of chapter 4 is that Protestants effected an ideological shift that marked the "fleshliness" of lush liturgical ritual as both effeminate and foreign (specifically Jewish or Turkish) and that these qualities were antithetical to innate German simplicity and manly rigor. Baum shows that devotional practices involving, for example, icons or the rosary were marked as the follies of old women and children, while the richness of elite urban liturgies was associated with sexually corrupting foreign imports and female bodies. (Baum claims on p. 115 that the concern was "transgressive female sexuality" but the examples he gives illustrate without exception fears of effeminacy, emasculation, and transgressive or corroded male sexuality for which the female body was used as a cipher.) Baum's discussion of anti-Semitism is limited to Christian criticism of their body-focused hygienic rituals and Old Testament sacrifices, which Protestants equated with traditional Christian ritual and contrasted with their own focus on the Word. Baum argues that associating the Roman Church with women and Jews/Turks built an emotionally-laden rhetoric that successfully divided urban, male, German Christians from Rome.

In the fifth chapter, Baum seeks to determine the extent to which this rhetoric reflected actual changes in liturgical practice and experience. Referring back to the statistics of chapter 1, Baum concludes that significant changes in sensory ritual were likely most evident in large, urban churches, which actually owned the fancy liturgical furniture and vestments to which Protestants objected. Poorer rural parishes for the most part had not owned much of this stuff in the first place and, with nothing to get rid of, little changed. With regard to the wealthy urban churches, Baum notes that the elimination of processions and of the Offertory portion of the Mass in fact rendered many of these objects purposeless anyway (monstrances and censers, for example). Similarly, reducing the number of altars and side chapels removed the need for so many candelabras, textiles, etc., which all could be melted down or sold off to finance violent conflict. The first generation of Protestant reformers prioritized articulation of the Word (whether Scripture or the sermon) above all else and accordingly eliminated more elaborate acoustic experiences, including polyphonic singing, organ music, and cacophonic bell-ringing. Baum does point out that these bans seem to have lasted for only a few decades mid-century, after which churches began to reintroduce polyphonic and organ music and even to re-purchase various ritual objects.

This observation sets up the final chapter, in which Baum first discusses the Gnesio-Lutheran response to the 1548 Interim, through which Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sought to revive traditional ceremonies, before he turns to the late-century conflict between Lutherans and German Calvinists. Baum here drives home his argument against the progressivist narrative of "desensualization" that sees Calvinism's bare bones worship as the culmination of Protestant sensory deprivation. On the contrary, Baum argues, Reformed theologians not only knew well that their simpler ritual was equally bodily and sensory but even justified it by recourse to the old premise that sense experience exercises moral influence on the human soul. Towards the end of the chapter, he returns to the theme emphasized in chapter 1, namely, that local resources and economic constraints greatly affected the sense experience of Christian ritual. Baum draws in Heidelberg theologian David Pareus's recommendations for New World missionaries: since Christ used a kind of bread that was readily available, missionaries should use whatever foodstuff occupied the equivalent cultural place of bread in European society when organizing the Eucharistic ritual abroad. The cultural experience of fundamental and nourishing food was more important than the specific sensory qualities of European wheat bread.

This curious anecdote illustrates Baum's central argument: despite the all the intellectual reasonings of the elite, "the divergent, quotidian concerns of political economy, not Aristotelian science, were of primary importance" (199). Late medieval Christians, Lutherans, and Reformed all shared the conviction that the sense experience of Christian worship affected the spiritual state of the devout and all attempted to shape their rituals accordingly. All, however, were equally constrained by local resources so that experience of urban worship continued to differ from rural parishes.

I recommend this book to any scholar working on religious ritual and affect. The diversity of methodologies (archival statistics, close reading, intellectual history, imaginative reconstruction) models different ways of approaching pre-modern religious culture. Baum's study itself is thought-provoking, well-grounded, and well-conceived. In its attention to each of the five senses, it provides an excellent point of departure for more in-depth studies of particular practices or phenomena. My greatest criticisms of the book are reserved for the press. The book is poorly copy-edited and retains errors that sometimes disturb the sense of the passage and require the reader to linger over the sentence trying to figure out what is meant. Similarly, there are a wealth of typos, some of which I simply find mysterious (p. 249 has two citations where a stray "u" is attached to the end of a work title). Finally, the book has an extensive bibliography of primary sources but fully lacks a bibliography of secondary sources. Perhaps we are expected to be able to google things easily these days, but without recourse to an electronic search engine it is extremely unwieldy to find the full reference for works cited later in each chapter. It is a pity that such carelessness mars an otherwise excellent work of scholarship.

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